I read with dismay last week of a Great White Shark attack in False Bay, South Africa. Dismay as the headlines were once again focussed on the aggression of the shark missing the fact that the beach had been closed and very clear advice given not to swim off what is a very popular surfing beach at Fish Hoek – and these were consciously ignored. Why is it that we are surprised as a species when we go into the realms of others that they just don’t conform to our rules all the time?
False Bay is a beautiful but harsh environment, and I was fortunate to spend some time there this summer. Nestling to the east of the Cape of Good Hope it offers some dramatic coastline and when the wind blows some awesome waves too.
Along it’s shoreline are the only mainland breeding colonies of the fast diminishing African Penguin, and the threatened African Black Oystercatchers can be found on the sandy beaches too, their lot improving thanks to the ban of 4 wheel drive vehicles there now.
Head out into the bay itself early in the morning and not only are there some beautiful sunrises to be seen but the real drama of the place unfolds.
It’s a time when the Cape Fur Seals are returning from night-time feeding sorties, heading back to the sanctuary of the huge colony to be found on a wave beaten rock almost central to the bay and appropriately named Seal Island.
At this time of year in particular there is a greater percentage of young seals in the sorties and as the groups return from their feeding they often struggle to keep up and can become isolated.
Their vulnerability is to the predator at the top of this particular food chain and who has been drawn here for just these few key months of the year based on knowledge and experience that these hunting opportunities are at their most fruitful now; the Great White Shark.
I spent a number of mornings in the waters off Seal Island in the company of undoubted expert (and a pretty decent photographer too) Chris Fallows, and his understanding of just how the predation here works is based on years of simply being there each and every day that the weather allows. The first hour of the day is when most of the action is likely to take place and unlike any other form of photography that I’ve undertaken before there was simply no predictability as to what was going to happen where in a fairly large expanse of water too.
The clue is often in the surrounding Gulls – they seem to know when an attack is imminent or happening and sudden movements of them in a particular direction would see our boat turn and head at great speed to the site: a real adrenalin rush and one where a good sense of balance is very necessary too.
Attacks when they happen are challenging to photograph but the drama is unquestionable, and watching a small seal dodging the thrusts of a shark countless times his size is uncomfortably absorbing drama. Statistically seals do have the upper hand and if they survive the first rush from the depths below by the shark then their manouverability is that much the greater and they tend to make it away, often though bearing some dramatic scars.
As I spent more mornings out there and whilst my natural instincts were very much on the side of the seal, I became increasingly in awe of the Great Whites – not only their extraordinary hunting capabilities, but their grace and unbelievable power. This last appreciation though was only fully realised on my final morning when the daily tow of a decoy seal behind the boat (only undertaken after the main hunting period and for a short amount of time) resulted in two breach attacks.
It’s hard to describe the adrenalin rush that this brings or the speed and power that you are witnessing, especially after a longish spell of concentration through your camera lens on the bobbing decoy and absolutely no warning or indication as to when (or if) anything is going to happen. I consider my reactions to be pretty decent but from first frame to last with a Canon 1D Mk4 that shoots at 10 frames a second there were only 6 frames in each burst – less than a second for a 3 or 4 metre long animal to lift itself clear of the water having pinpointed a target in the process and then landed back: truly awesome.
As well as being an amazing experience (and fantastic if challenging photographically…and yes there will be a Natures Images trip there soon) it’s a salutory reminder that this is the part of the world where given a level set of circumstances the Great White Shark is dominant. The fact that we fail to recognise that at times or more callously look to use the powers that we have to exploit this magnificent creature and its relations so relentlessly in the name of a food delicacy is more of a reflection on us as a species I’m afraid.